Dani Pedrosa

The MotoGP 2018 mid-term report

Which MotoGP rider is dux of this year’s class? Who gets extra detention or has to write lines? Who deserves a gold star for encouragement? It’s time to name names …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Disclaimer, before we start: it’s hard to come up with a MotoGP mid-season review that lands smack-bang in the middle of the 2018 season, with the 50 per cent point coming halfway around the 11th racing lap of the Brno circuit in the Czech Republic on Sunday August 5. So you’ll have to forgive us as we go a few laps early on what has become an annual tradition – the half-term grades for the good and great of two wheels this season. And in a season like 2018, there’s plenty of material to pore through.

We’ve had insanely close races (Qatar and Assen, the latter instantly – and appropriately – hailed as one of the greatest Grands Prix of all time), the customary annual Marc Marquez masterclasses in Austin and Germany, the absurdity of the start of the race in Argentina (hello to all Jack Miller fans), and the frankly bizarre sight of Jorge Lorenzo, who was nowhere early in the season, winning back-to-back races on a Ducati at Mugello and Catalunya, the latter reprising memories of his most dominant Yamaha days where he broke the spirit of his rivals with one devastatingly metronomic lap after another.

Nine races down, 10 to go – so near-enough to halfway. Who has stood out, for the right and wrong reasons? Who has exceeded expectations, and who has fallen short? Who needs to finish the second semester of the year strongly? And who might be getting extra detention if the travelling MotoGP paddock was a school classroom?

Here’s our take on who has earned what so far.

Dux of the class

He’s become a regular in this spot, so perhaps the better way to make a case for Marc Marquez is to give you time to think who should be here in his place. (Waiting). See, told you. His wins have gone from utterly dominant (COTA) to calculatingly brilliant (when he broke up the pursuing pack with two spectacular laps to end one of the bigger brawls for a win the sport has ever seen at Assen), but it’s two races he hasn’t won that show why, barring something unforeseen, he’s likely to become a five-time MotoGP champion in his first six seasons by the time November rolls around. One was his controversial ride in Argentina, where he was in a different league in practice before a sketchy track caught him out in qualifying, and then his race … well, that, and the contact with several riders (particularly Valentino Rossi) that sparked a war of words wasn’t his finest moment, but one that showed the pace he has over the rest when he’s pushing as hard as he can. The other was Barcelona, when he realised he couldn’t safely keep up with a blistering Lorenzo and settled for second when Andrea Dovizioso, who looked to be his primary title rival at the time, crashed out early in the race. There’ll be the odd race like Mugello, when he fell (and didn’t manage to save a slide for once) and couldn’t get back into the points, but his rivals are going to need a lot more of those if they’re to deny the Spaniard a high five at (or perhaps before) Valencia.

Honourable mentions: One for Lorenzo, for his Mugello/Catalunya double after being basically invisible on a red bike for a year and a bit beforehand. Watching such consistent excellence in a sport with so many variables lap by lap is mesmerising when it happens. And another for Johann Zarco, who (before his home GP in France) looked the Yamaha rider most likely to snap the manufacturer’s losing run (more of which later) with a series of searing performances.

Others have had flashes in a year where 10 different riders have already made the podium, but nobody has been as fast for as long as Marquez has this year, and it isn’t close.

Encouragement award

Rossi deserves a reward ribbon here for his persistence, hauling a bike that isn’t at race-winning pace into podium contention time and time again with (typically) canny racecraft and decisive overtaking that overcomes his (alas, also typically) underwhelming qualifying efforts; he had a dramatic pole at home at Mugello and was on the front row at Assen, but he’s often having to fight recovery missions from the third row or further back.

Danilo Petrucci is worthy of a mention here as well, the Italian nabbing a podium at Le Mans and nabbing a factory Ducati seat for next year after Lorenzo’s shock defection to Honda to be Marquez’s teammate in 2018.

His Alma Pramac Ducati teammate Miller gets kudos too, finishing the first five Grands Prix of the year in the top 10, taking a big-balls pole with the lap of his life in Argentina, and riding an immaculate race in France, where fourth was arguably his most convincing big-bike result yet (even more so than his win at Assen 2016, as he conceded himself).

Elsewhere, Alex Rins has been fast when he’s stayed on the bike long enough; in the first nine GPs of the year, the Spaniard had two podiums (second at Assen and third in Argentina) and a fifth place in Italy, but five race-ending crashes. And Rins’ compatriot Tito Rabat has nearly scored as many points already (30) as he has in his best MotoGP full season (35 last year), turning his career trajectory around on a satellite Ducati after leaving Marc VDS Honda behind at the end of ‘17.

Could do better

Maverick Vinales was expected, along with Dovizioso, to be Marquez’s main roadblock to the title this season, but the Spaniard has been up and down in temperament as well as results, a pole in Austin (after Marquez was penalised) and just three podiums in the first nine races seeing him sit third in the title chase through persistence more than any real pace, and with his frustration mounting by the race. Rossi has done marginally better on the same equipment, but perception is everything – and the sight of Vinales getting swamped in the early laps of races on cold tyres and with a full fuel tank has been depressingly common in 2018.

Dovizioso winds up here too, if only for the strange way his season has shaken out – so, so consistent when he challenged Marquez for the title all the way to the line last year, he’s already crashed out three times in 2018 to make his chance of the crown the longest of long shots by the halfway mark.

Dovi’s compatriot, Andrea Iannone, completes our trio here, the Suzuki man showing why he should be pictured under ‘mercurial’ in the dictionary given how hot (back-to-back podiums in Austin and Jerez) and cold he can blow. In his sixth season (and his last one with Ducati before moving to Aprilia for next year), he’s nothing if not consistently inconsistent …

Needs a strong second semester

Vinales, for his own state of mind and Yamaha’s future given Rossi, 40 next February, won’t be (dare we contemplate) around forever. Dovizioso, who simply can’t afford to be out-scored by Lorenzo before the Spaniard splits for Honda, particularly as he had a 40-point lead over his teammate after four races. Miller, who will be hoping to rekindle the form from his first five races as he prepares to step up to become his team’s leader next year when Petrucci moves up and Moto2 front-runner Pecco Bagnaia moves in. And Alvaro Bautista, the Spanish veteran who sits 13th in the championship, who must prove his worth if he’s to be picked up by anyone for 2019 after the Angel Nieto Ducati satellite entry sold its grid slots to the Petronas Yamaha MotoGP team, to be run by the Sepang International Circuit. Which brings us to …

Extra detention

Dani Pedrosa’s body of work over a 13-year stint in the premier class didn’t deserve to end up like this, nor in this category. The Spaniard announced ahead of the German GP that 2018 would be his last lap, finally putting an end to persistent rumours that he’d switch to the aforementioned Malaysian-backed Yamaha project after spending his entire career riding for Honda. Once he puts a full stop on his career in Valencia, he’ll surely be remembered as the best rider never to have won a premier-class world title, and you wouldn’t bet against him riding with more freedom than he’s had so far this year and snaring another win before he leaves, extending his remarkable run of at least one victory in all of his MotoGP campaigns.

It’s testament to the esteem Pedrosa is held in that we’d even contemplate another victory after how underwhelming 2018 has been to date; on the same bike as the championship leader, remember, Pedrosa has a best result of fifth, has missed Q2 twice and is 116 points behind Marquez. Ten different riders have made the podium this season, yet nine races in, the 32-year-old isn’t one of them. Pedrosa’s legacy remains intact no matter what happens from here, but this isn’t the end we envisaged for one of the sport’s front-runners for over a decade.

Loyalty to Honda could have been one reason for Pedrosa not finishing his career on a Yamaha, but Yamaha’s wretched recent record could have been another, which is why they’ve also ended up in our mid-season naughty corner. Yamaha’s last win came when Rossi saluted at Assen last year, 19 races ago, and the most recent round at the Sachsenring represented an unwanted record for the manufacturer, as the drought became its biggest ever (Yamaha previously went 18 races without a win between Malaysia 2002 and South Africa 2004, Rossi’s first race with the marque). Three riders in the top five of the standings is one thing, but entirely another when they have zero wins between them …

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10 fearless predictions for the MotoGP season

Want to know what will happen on two wheels in 2018? We’ve peered into the crystal ball …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Testing? Done. Takeaways from testing? On record. The season start in Qatar? Merely days away. Which means it’s time. Time to stick our neck out and come up with 10 fearless predictions for the coming MotoGP season.

Who wins the title? Who has no chance? Who will spring a surprise for the right or wrong reasons? Which rookie will shine brightest? And is there anyone who can unseat Marc Marquez from his throne as the king of MotoGP?

We’ve dusted off the crystal ball and peered into the future to come up with our cast-iron guarantees (or, if you like, best educated guesses) for 2018. Deep breath, here goes.

1. Pedrosa is a title contender

Yes, we know he’s been in the premier class for 12 years and hasn’t finished third or better for five seasons. Yes, we’re aware three of his teammates (Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner and Marquez – four times) have won the championship where he hasn’t managed it once. And yes, he’s 33 years old in September. But Dani Pedrosa’s pre-season pace has been eye-catching, and if you were going to choose someone to give Marquez a run to the title, what about the rider on the same bike on the other side of the same garage? Any Pedrosa predictions have to come, history tells us, with an asterisk for injury, but we’re backing him in.

2. More wins for Jorge, more points for Dovi

Jorge Lorenzo’s first year in Ducati red was underwhelming in the extreme, particularly when compared to that of teammate Andrea Dovizioso, who snared six victories to the Mallorcan’s zero to become Marquez’s major (and unlikely) rival for the title. The metronomic ‘Dovi’ crashes rarely and makes very few mistakes, and we’re predicting it’ll be that rather than outrageous speed that keeps the Italian in the title fight again. Can we see Lorenzo picking up a win or two more than his teammate? Absolutely. Will that be enough to be the highest-scoring Ducati rider over 19 races? We’re saying no.

3. Jack Miller will make podiums, plural

He’s stood on a MotoGP podium before, of course (who can forget Assen 2016 when the Aussie surveyed the view from the top step?), but that was a crazy race in crazy weather that owed itself to opportunism, sublime skill, a smattering of luck and a ‘what the hell’ approach. This year? Jack Miller’s pace in pre-season testing on a Ducati has been fierce and not at all fleeting – he’s been a top-10 constant in Malaysia, Thailand and Qatar – and you sense he can make the top three in races (plural) this year with or without inclement weather aiding his cause.

4. Johann Zarco will lead Yamaha’s charge

This is bold, but the Frenchman who adopts a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to his racing might just fly while the factory Yamaha squad flap about with aerodynamic tweaks, wondering which chassis to use and managing the expectations of Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi, who often want very different things from the same motorcycle. One thing we know: Zarco won’t want for wondering. What effect, we wonder, will Yamaha’s end-of-year divorce with Tech 3 have on his chances as the season progresses? (We’ll be using that as our asterisk, incidentally, if this one doesn’t come true).

5. Rossi will ride on

OK, so this one isn’t so bold. Indications suggest ‘The Doctor’ will keep making house calls on the MotoGP calendar for the next two seasons, which will take him into his 40s. For anyone else, signing a multi-year deal at that age and stage of a career would seem unlikely and lucky in equal measure – but the biggest drawcard in the sport (still) will be competitive for as long as he’s around. Let’s hope it’s for a good while yet.

6. The silly season won’t be very silly

Rossi likely to re-sign with Yamaha’s factory squad, Marquez already locked in at Repsol Honda, Vinales staying at Yamaha until 2020 … will there be much intrigue over this season as to who rides where next year? Other than what happens to Zarco when the Tech 3/Yamaha alliance ends, we might know more about next season before this one really gets underway, especially at the pointy end of the field.

7. Rins will rise

We never got to see the best of Suzuki rookie Alex Rins last year, one injury after another scuppering his chances of playing himself into the top flight alongside experienced Italian Andrea Iannone. But there were signs the 22-year-old was learning fast towards the end of the season, top 10 results in Japan, Australia and Valencia (where he finished a career-best fourth) giving cause for optimism, and he’s been the pick of Suzuki’s riders in testing, save for Iannone’s first two days at one of his strongest circuits in Qatar. Iannone can blow hot and cold, but the more consistent Rins will end up as the team’s primary charger.

8. Taka takes a turn in the top three

Ten of the riders on this year’s grid have never stood on a MotoGP podium, and based on the above, Rins looks best placed to get there first. But keep an eye on Takaaki Nagakami, the Japanese rookie who has stepped up from Moto2 to partner Cal Crutchlow at LCR Honda this season. A surprise in the top 10 at the Thailand test, the 26-year-old has impressed the battle-hardened Crutchlow already, the Briton telling reporters in Buriram that “he’s a good kid and he’s got a big future ahead in MotoGP”. If you’re looking for a smoky to make a top three this year, Taka’s top of the list.

9. Thailand will be the GP of the year

Argentina will be manic, Mugello magic. Assen will be, well, Assen, and Phillip Island will probably produce the race of the year, if recent Australian Grands Prix are any indication. But the event of 2018? Let’s give the ‘trophy’ to Thailand now, shall we? A nation obsessed by bikes, desperate to see the world’s best riders ply their trade and a debut world championship race in Buriram? If the crowds at pre-season testing were any indication, look out in October when MotoGP returns for real.

10. The Marquez masterclass will roll on

Can four titles in five years become five in six? Let’s answer one question with another: who or what stops him?

Thai takeaways: what the riders thought of MotoGP’s new track

Marquez, Rossi, Pedrosa, Miller and more weigh in on the newest circuit to join the MotoGP calendar in Buriram.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s been a while since we had a completely new circuit join the MotoGP calendar – the Red Bull Ring in Austria re-joined the world championship in 2016, while the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina came on stream two years earlier.

So it was with much anticipation (and plenty of cold water) that MotoGP arrived in steaming hot Thailand last week for a three-day test at the Chang International Circuit, located at Buriram, a little over 400 kilometres northeast of the country’s capital, Bangkok.

The 4.6km track, which has played host to World Superbikes for the past three years, will hold its first world championship Grands Prix in October this year, meaning riders and teams were keen to bank as much knowledge as they could over three days of running, and to familiarise themselves with the 12-turn layout. “I’ve adapted to it pretty quickly, and the circuit itself is very fast,” said Alma Pramac Ducati’s Jack Miller after the second day of the test, adding “it’s a little bit like Austria, minus the elevation changes.” We’re presuming he meant minus snow-capped mountains, lush green fields and a giant bull statue, as well …

The comparisons between Austria and Buriram are valid – the Thailand circuit is 300m longer, has two more corners and is just as wide (12m) as the Red Bull Ring – but while Austria has been Ducati territory for the past two seasons, Buriram was all about Honda, factory rider Dani Pedrosa setting the fastest time of the test (a lap of 1min 29.781secs on the final day), and becoming the third Honda to top the timesheets after Cal Crutchlow led day one, and Pedrosa’s teammate and reigning world champion Marc Marquez set the day two benchmark.

Pre-season testing times should be taken with a grain of salt – who would have thought Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo would struggle so much after dominating the Malaysian test just two weeks previously? – but the timesheets can tell us that Johann Zarco is plainly the fastest man on a Yamaha, factory Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales have a lot of head-scratching to do between now and the final test in Qatar in a fortnight’s time, and Miller and Ducati appear to be the perfect marriage, the Aussie backing up his strong showing at Sepang by finishing sixth overall – and the fastest Ducati rider – in Buriram.

That’s what the stopwatch says, but what did the riders themselves think of the new circuit? Here’s what they had to say, and where they finished after three days of sweltering action in front of grandstands that were routinely packed, the locals showing their love for all things two wheels before racing starts in earnest in eight months’ time.

Dani Pedrosa
Repsol Honda Team (1:29.781, 1st overall)
“The circuit is quite narrow, so it’s important to use the right lines and carry speed. We’re working to find the best balance in order to be quick in both the fast sectors and the more twisty ones.”

Marc Marquez
Repsol Honda Team (+0.188secs, 3rd)
“Regarding the track layout, it seemed quite fast to me when I lapped it on a scooter yesterday, but today riding my bike, I realised it was slower that I was expecting, with many second- or third-gear corners. Still, there are some hard acceleration and braking points, and it will probably be challenging to manage tyre life, so we’ll work on that as well.”

Jack Miller
Alma Pramac Racing (+0.404secs, 6th)
“The layout of the circuit is fascinating. I expected it to be more dirty, especially in the morning, but I had the feeling of having a good grip right away. It’s a fast track and it’s nice to race here. To do the best lap time you have to be patient and you have to give up a bit in braking to get the acceleration, especially on the Ducati. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that at the moment. But being patient isn’t one of my strong points …”

Andrea Dovizioso
Ducati Team (+0.411secs, 7th)
“The Buriram track is very unusual and it wasn’t easy to get used to its layout. There are three corners which are virtually hairpins and then the rest is quite a pretty straightforward run. It’s quite a slow track for our bike, but it’s always interesting to try new circuits.”

Maverick Vinales
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP (+0.493secs, 8th)
“I like the track a lot, it fits my riding style quite well with these flowing corners.”

Danilo Petrucci
Alma Pramac Racing (+0.586secs, 9th)
“I liked the track right away. We were expecting to find a circuit with a lot of aggressive braking but many curves turned out to be fast.”

Tito Rabat
Reale Avintia Racing (+0.695secs, 11th)
“I like the circuit and I had a lot of fun. It has several parts that reminded me of Qatar, others of Texas… it has some long straights and the asphalt is okay, although at the beginning of the day it was a little bit dirty. But the first impression was very good.”

Valentino Rossi
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP (+0.730secs, 12th)
“First of all, the feeling with the track is not too bad, I expect worse, but first of all the track is in a good condition. It’s clean and the asphalt has good grip. This is very important. And also the layout. I remembered [this track to be] more similar to Austria, so I was very worried. But when you ride maybe it is more similar to Argentina. It’s good to ride, you have a good feeling, you enjoy. The track is not very difficult but anyway it’s fun. Technically it’s quite easy, but it’s not boring.”

Aleix Espargaro
Aprilia Racing Team Gresini (+0.920secs, 14th)
“To be honest, the track surprised me. I had more fun than I thought I would. The first part is not particularly interesting with all the straights connected by braking sections, but overall it is a nice track.”

Alvaro Bautista
Angel Nieto Team (+1.102secs, 17th)
“It’s a track that has a couple of good points like Turn 4, where you go into it very fast and you have to go down a couple of gears and enter quickly. The circuit reminds me a little of Austria; it’s varied and fun. I thought it looked easier, on paper, but riding a MotoGP bike complicates everything a bit more. The last two sectors are critical; they are narrow and you have to clearly choose the line because otherwise you can lose a lot of time.”

What we learned from the Malaysia MotoGP test

The 2018 Ducati is a rocket, Honda is lurking, Miller’s pace is real, and other takeaways from three sweltering days in Kuala Lumpur.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

MotoGP, oh how we’ve missed you. The months (well, month and a bit) of silence as 2017 became 2018 were finally broken when Yamaha’s Johann Zarco became the first man to hit the track at Sepang in Kuala Lumpur last week to start the first official pre-season test of the year, and that sweet sound of 260-horsepower MotoGP engines soon filled the air as we quickly forgot about last year.

We have 19 races ahead of us between now and November, but there’s plenty that can be learned – and plenty of head-scratching as we try to decipher what’s real from what isn’t – from three days of testing at one of the world’s toughest tracks for man and machinery.

Riders sweltered, new parts were tried and tweaked, timesheets were scrutinised and conclusions were arrived at – so to that end, what did we really learn from the initial sparring that is the ‘phoney war’ of testing?

Plenty, but there were as many questions as answers as MotoGP packed up to head to Thailand for pre-season test number two from February 16-18.

1. Who looks good?

Assessing pre-season testing pace isn’t as simple as scanning a timesheet to see who’s on top and who’s not; unless you’re on the inside of a team, judging such variables as fuel loads, tyre age, how much a rider is really pushing and how much they’re leaving in the tank and a million other variables becomes a matter of joining the dots without ever knowing the full story.

The timesheets, for what they’re worth, showed us that Ducati are plenty fast – so fast in fact that Jorge Lorenzo’s final-day session-topping lap time (1min 58.830secs) was the fastest-ever lap of Sepang on two wheels, and over two-tenths of a second faster than Dani Pedrosa’s circuit-best lap on a Honda set in 2015. The long straights of Sepang play perfectly to the Ducati’s preference for tracks where straight-line grunt gets the greatest reward, and while Lorenzo was quick to temper any commentary with the usual caveat of “it’s only testing”, he couldn’t hide his delight after suffering through a winless campaign in his first year in Ducati red last season.

“The bike turns better and I can open the throttle before (earlier),” he told reporters after the final day.

“If the bike itself turns better and you can open the throttle better, you can be faster. Let’s say that during the last year, I made 80 per cent (of the difference), and now during this winter to this test, as I predicted, Ducati made the difference this time.”

What of the other manufacturers? Pedrosa topped the timesheets on day one and was just 0.179secs adrift of Lorenzo on the final day as Honda appeared to be both fast and reliable, and while Repsol Honda teammate Marc Marquez finished seventh overall on all three days, don’t expect the four-time and reigning world champion to be anywhere near that spot once the racing starts for real in Qatar in March, especially with LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow doing so much donkey work testing new parts for the factory.

Yamaha? Maverick Vinales led the standings after day two, and while he and factory teammate Valentino Rossi felt the 2018 version of the TZR-M1 was better than the 2017 model that proved hard to fathom, both riders knew they had plenty to do in the coming tests. One Yamaha rider who has already set out his stall for 2018 is Tech 3’s Zarco, the Frenchman confirming he’ll continue to race the 2016 Yamaha he performed on so superbly during his rookie campaign last year, opting for the greater grip offered by the ’16 bike than the extra feedback he gleaned from the ’17 model.

The other manufacturers (Suzuki, Aprilia, KTM) still look some way off the top three, but what order that top three find themselves in after the first test (and will do after the first race) remains something of a mystery.

What is more clear? The award for the hardest-working rider in Sepang, which was Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Bradley Smith. The Briton logged 77 laps on the final day alone – the equivalent of nearly four race distances – and produced his best lap of the day on the 71st of them. A big tick to his off-season fitness regimen, then.

2. There’s no going back for noses, is there?

It appears not, if some of the aerodynamic devices fitted onto the front of various bikes over the three days are any indication …

Ugly? Perhaps. But as any engineer or rider will tell you, the only truly beautiful bike is a fast one …

3. Is Jack Miller’s pace real?

It certainly appears to be. The Aussie made the switch from Marc VDS Honda to the newly-named Alma Pramac Racing squad to ride a Ducati GP17 this season, and while teammate Danilo Petrucci rode a full-factory GP18 machine to provide technical back-up for Ducati factory riders Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso at Sepang, Miller flew on the ‘old’ machine, finishing inside the top five on all three days and producing his first-ever sub two-minute lap of the circuit on day two (1:59.509), a time he lowered by another 0.163 seconds on the last day.

He had a small tip-off early on the final day, but just went faster and faster. “When we put a new tyre in I’m able to improve more and more, taking a few risks here and there but still feeling pretty much in control,” ‘Jackass’ said after the test wrapped up.

“The more I ride the bike, the more I understand it and get the feel for it.” Exciting times for the Aussie, who turned 23 in the lead-up to the test.

4. Can you push too far in testing?

Absolutely yes. There’s an old adage that you’ll never know where the limit is unless you push past it from time to time, but KTM’s Pol Espargaro might have taken that a little too far with a crash on day two that saw him rendered a spectator for the final day, leaving test rider Mika Kallio to do much of the heavy lifting for the Austrian squad. Still, to hear the Spaniard describe his off, it could have been much, much worse …

“Honestly I feel lucky … I crashed before T4 (Turn 4) under braking and hit the outside wall with plus-250km/h. Seems nothing is broken, but I feel pain,” he said.

Little wonder. The good news? He’ll be back for Thailand in a fortnight’s time, and thanking his lucky stars …

5. Is Sepang a useful testing venue?

On balance, you’d have to say yes – after all, there’s not too many circuits in chilly late-winter Europe in late January/early February that could provide track temperatures of 54 degrees …

Pre-season venues are always a compromise for teams – one of the criticisms, if you could call it that, of using Phillip Island the past two pre-seasons was that its balls-out fast and flowing layout was so atypical to the rest of the tracks on the calendar that teams left Australia wondering whether their bikes could get stopped and power out of slow-speed corners, of which the Island has precisely two.

Sepang, with its long straights leading into hairpins at the first and final corners, and its twisty middle sector where a nimble bike can make up huge slabs of time, is as good of a compromise as it gets. Even if the weather can turn upside-down in an instant.

Who wins the MotoGP crown, and why?

It’s Marquez vs Dovizioso for the biggest prize in two-wheel motorsport – here’s five things you need to know before their final-round showdown in Valencia.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

After nearly eight months, 17 Grands Prix, 399 racing laps, five race-winners and 10 different riders on the podium, the 2017 MotoGP season comes down to this – 30 laps in Valencia on Sunday to decide who will wear the crown as the king of two-wheel motorsport. Some 32 riders have taken to the grid for some or all of the 2017 campaign, but Valencia is all about just two.

For Marc Marquez, being in contention at the pointy end of the season is nothing new. In a whirlwind four MotoGP seasons before this one, the Repsol Honda man has won three titles, and leads this year’s championship by 21 points coming into Valencia.

Marquez knows what it’s like to be atop the table coming into the last race; in 2013, he led Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo by 13 points heading to Valencia, a third place as Lorenzo won the race seeing him win the crown by four points. Marquez has done it the easier way too; his 2014 title came in Japan with three races to go after he’d won the opening 10 Grands Prix of the season, while last season, he also secured the title at Motegi with three races remaining.

For Andrea Dovizioso, 2017 has been a breakout campaign for a rider who had managed just two premier-class victories in nine seasons before this one. Like Marquez, the Ducati rider has taken six victories so far in 2017, and no matter what happens in Valencia, he’ll top his previous-best championship finish of third, which he earned riding for Marquez’s current team back in 2011. It’s been 13 years since Dovizioso could call himself a world champion, which came when he won the 125cc title for Honda in 2004.

What are the mathematical implications of this weekend? What must Dovizioso do to pip Marquez at the post? Who’s hot and who isn’t? And what role could teammates Dani Pedrosa (Marquez) and Lorenzo (Dovizioso) play, let alone the likes of factory Yamaha pair Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales, among others? Here’s what to watch for, and why.

The maths

To say Marquez is in the box seat is an understatement. With a 21-point advantage over Dovizioso, the Spaniard need only finish 11th or better to win the title no matter what the Italian does. In 17 races so far this year, Marquez has finished 14 of them (he crashed in Argentina and France, and had an engine failure in Great Britain), and 11 of those finishes have been podiums. Sixth in Italy has been his worst result.

Dovizioso has been more dependable (he’s finished 16 times in 17 races, equal with Johann Zarco for the most finishes this year), and the one DNF wasn’t even his fault, taken out mid-race by Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro in Argentina in round two. ‘Dovi’ has finished on the podium eight times, but picked a bad time for his worst result of the year last month at Phillip Island, when he finished just 13th as Marquez won the race to see an 11-point championship deficit balloon to 33.

The Valencia records

For all of his dominance elsewhere, Marquez has a surprisingly modest MotoGP record at Valencia, winning just once (2014) in four attempts. But before Ducati fans get too excited, it’s worth pointing out that Marquez made the podium on the other three visits – third in 2013, and second in 2015 and again last year.

Valencia is also home to perhaps Marquez’s most mesmerising world championship performance; in his final Moto2 race before graduating to the top flight in 2012, he was sent to the back of the grid for a practice infringement and started 33rd – and won anyway, his first lap that day one that still has seasoned onlookers shaking their heads in astonishment …

By contrast, Dovizioso has been super-consistent – he’s finished in the top 10 for nine consecutive years at Valencia – but has just one podium (third in 2011) on his CV. But that was the Dovizioso of old – who knows what this year’s re-booted version could achieve?

The recent form

Marquez has led the standings after eight races this season, Dovizioso two. More recently, over a snapshot of the past five races, it’s Marquez 108 points, Dovizioso 78. Included in that quintet of Grands Prix are three wins for Marquez (San Marino, Aragon and Australia), and two for Dovizioso (Japan and last time out in Malaysia, both of which came in wet conditions). In fact, the front-running duo have been so dominant that the last rider other than Marquez or Dovizioso to win a race this year was Rossi, way back in round eight at Assen in June. Since then, it really has been a two-horse race. Expect Dovizioso and Ducati to be doing a rain dance this week …

The teammates

What could Pedrosa or Lorenzo do to influence the title race? Lorenzo’s role in particular came under the microscope in Malaysia, when he led for much of the race before making a mistake at the final corner with five laps to go, Dovizioso steaming through to take the win. Afterwards, Lorenzo claimed he didn’t see a dashboard instruction from Ducati to let his teammate by to take the extra five world championship points that come with a victory, but added “I already knew, I didn’t need anyone to tell me what to do in this situation”.

What brings Lorenzo into play here is that the Mallorcan has been the dominant force at Valencia in recent times, winning three of the past four races there to go with his other triumph at the tight Spanish track in 2010. He secured the 2015 title – the only one not won by Marquez since the Honda rider came into MotoGP – with victory from pole. Rain, hail or shine, Lorenzo shapes as a factor at Valencia, which could help his teammate.

Pedrosa also has success to draw upon at Valencia, but not recently; the last of his three wins there came in 2012, while last year, he crashed out on lap seven after qualifying a lowly eighth.

If either teammate is figure prominently in Valencia, it’s likely to be Lorenzo – and especially if it rains.

The sideshows

While it’s all about the top two in Valencia, there’s several other storylines worth keeping an eye on.

With 197 points in 16 of the 17 races (he missed Misano with a broken leg), 2017 is already guaranteed to be Rossi’s lowest-scoring season in five years since he’s been back at Yamaha. Worse could be yet to come – should Pedrosa outscore him by 13 points in the final race, ‘The Doctor’ would fall to fifth in the championship, his worst finish on a Yamaha in 12 seasons. The Italian hasn’t won at Valencia in 13 years, and has just one podium (second in 2014) in his past six starts.

For his old Yamaha teammate Lorenzo, 2017 shapes as the first season in his 10 MotoGP campaigns that he hasn’t won a race; second last time out in Malaysia was the best of his three podiums so far in red.

And for Aussie fans, keep an eye on Jack Miller, whose goals coming into the season were to stay healthy after an injury-ravaged 2016, and to finish inside the top 10 overall. He very nearly managed the former before a broken right leg saw him miss the round in Japan, but he’s bounced back since with strong top-10 runs at home in Australia and in Malaysia a fortnight ago. As for the latter: Miller sits 12th on 73 points coming into Valencia, two points behind Ducati’s Alvaro Bautista, and just 11 behind Yamaha’s Jonas Folger in 10th, with the German set to miss the season finale with illness.

Fifth – and topping his season-best to date of sixth at Assen and in Misano – would do it for Miller, depending on what Bautista can manage.

5 things to watch at the Australian MotoGP

A tense title fight will take centre-stage at Phillip Island, but there’s storylines to follow wherever you look as MotoGP roars onto our shores.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Andrea Dovizioso’s last-lap pass of Marc Marquez to win the Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix last Sunday at Motegi was, by itself, something special – so special that it’s already in the conversation for best final lap of all-time. But it wasn’t just the Ducati man’s defeat of Honda’s reigning and three-time world champion that gave Australian two-wheel fans something to shout about; the points ‘Dovi’ picked up for downing the modern-day master of MotoGP means Marquez’s lead atop the riders’ standings now sits at just 11 points with three races left.

The next of those races? This weekend at Phillip Island, a special track at any time, but one that’s elevated to an even higher stratosphere when there’s a genuine world title fight on the line.

The Australian GP won’t decide who wins the 2017 world title – the points table is too tight for that – but it will go a long way towards deciding who’ll become world champion as the series moves on to Malaysia before its final stop at Valencia in Spain on November 12.

Can ‘Dovi’ do it again? What does Marquez have left in reserve? Who else can muscle in at the front at this most particular of tracks? And what role will local hopeful Jack Miller, just three weeks after breaking his leg, play at his home GP, one held on a circuit where he’s typically shone?

Here’s our top five storylines to watch ahead of the action at the Island, which kicks off with two free practice sessions on Friday October 20.

1. And then there were two …

That Marquez and Dovizioso come to Australia separated by just the afore-mentioned 11 points is testament to the adage that there’s more than one way to win a title.

Marquez’s approach is one we know well; since 2013, when he won the crown in his rookie year, he’s been routinely on the ragged edge, taking risks few others would contemplate, and coming up with all manner of ways to save what would be certain crashes for others by using his elbows, knees or both.

The Dovizioso of 2017? An entirely different animal. The Italian has always been known as the last of the late brakers, and his pass of Marquez that won him the race in Japan – downhill into the 90-Degree Corner in the pouring rain with tyres that were shot to bits – was something few could have pulled off. But there’s a more aggressive approach to his riding in head-to-head battles this season, and winning bare-knuckle last-lap brawls with Marquez in Japan as well as Austria back in August is something that would have been hard to contemplate before this season.

Like his main rival, Marquez also has five wins in 2017, but his one-lap pace – he has six poles to Dovizioso’s zero – and 10 podiums in 15 races proves means he has a combination of speed and consistency that sets him apart. In the past nine races, Silverstone – when the Spaniard suffered a rarer than rare Honda engine failure – is the only time has hasn’t been on the rostrum. By contrast, Dovizioso has just one DNF (back in round two in Argentina) on his stats sheet, and has finished eighth or better in every race since.

The other wildcard for this weekend is the Island itself, and upon examination of their records in Australia, this round shapes as one where Dovizioso will be relatively content if he doesn’t haemorrhage too many points to Marquez. The Italian’s stats in Australia make for short and not particularly inspiring reading; he has just one podium (2011) here in nine premier-class outings, and admitted last year that Phillip Island was “not one of my favourite circuits because of its characteristics”.

On the other hand, Marquez has visited Australia four times on MotoGP machinery, and should have arguably won all four. In 2013, he was disqualified for failing to pit within the mandatory 10-lap limit to change bikes and tyres imposed on the field for safety reasons after a calamitous miscalculation by his team, while the following year, he was leading comfortably but fell victim to the plummeting track temperatures and crashed after starting from pole. In 2015, he careered away to win from pole, while pole last year ended in pain again when he crashed – again from the lead – at Turn 4 on lap 10. When it comes to pace Down Under, Marquez is indisputably on top.

2. But wait, there’s another two

Between them, Marquez and Dovizioso have won the last seven races of the 2017 season – which makes it somewhat surprising that two other riders step onto the Island this week with their championship chances still alive.

Maverick Vinales must be shaking his head at how his season has unravelled; after five races, the Yamaha new boy had won three Grands Prix to have a handy 17-point championship advantage after Le Mans. He’s not won a race since, has visited the podium just three times, and comes to Australia after a nightmare weekend in Japan, where he had his worst qualifying (14th) and second-worst race result (ninth) of the season.

The Spaniard sits 41 points behind compatriot Marquez, and is hanging on by his fingernails. His record in Australia is good – Vinales finished third on his second premier-class start at the Island last year – but he needs to step up and hope Marquez and Dovizioso stumble if he’s to play much of a part in the riders’ standings after Malaysia.

The other rider in mathematical contention with three races left? Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, but with a 74-point deficit to the top with a maximum of 75 available, it’s time for the diminutive Spaniard to turn his attentions realistically to next year, even if this year is still numerically alive.

3. The odd man out

The fifth of the five riders who broke clear at the top of the standings earlier in the season who we haven’t mentioned? Valentino Rossi, who was officially eliminated from title contention when he crashed out in Japan last weekend. More realistically, ‘The Doctor’s’ chances of the coveted 10th world championship that has eluded him since 2009 were over the moment he broke his right leg in a training accident ahead of Misano, and while he stunned the paddock with a front-row start and fifth-place finish on his return at Aragon after missing just one race, the tricky conditions at Motegi, allied to the Yamaha’s chronic lack of rear grip in colder conditions, proved a bridge too far.

Australia has been one of Rossi’s happier hunting grounds – he’s won here in the premier class six times, most recently and memorably in 2014 – and while the 38-year-old can now turn his attentions to being fully fit for the start of next season, he’ll want to overhaul the two-point deficit to Pedrosa in the standings for fourth place before Valencia is over. Fifth overall – where Rossi sits in the riders’ race with three Grands Prix left – would be his worst Yamaha campaign in 12 seasons.

4. Jack back on

Break your leg in a training accident, miss a race and then get back on the horse – that’s the model Rossi followed for Aragon, and one Miller will emulate this weekend as he rides at home after missing Motegi. The Australian insists he would have ridden this weekend no matter where the race was being held, but the fact it was at Phillip Island would have given him plenty of enthusiasm to attack his rehab over the past fortnight.

This season shapes to be the best of Miller’s three-year MotoGP tenure to date – two more points will see him overhaul last year’s 57-point tally – and his record at home is good, winning at the Island in Moto3 in 2014, and qualifying a premier-class best fifth here a year ago with what might have been his best single lap of the entire year under immense pressure.

The spotlight of riding at home can cause some to wilt, but ‘Jackass’ clearly thrives on the energy of his home fans and the masses of family who sit trackside clad in orange Miller merchandise (keep an eye peeled for Jack to acknowledge them as he rides through Turn 4 at the start of every on-track session).

In his third-last race for the Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS team before heading to Pramac Ducati for 2018, a home top-10 finish is absolutely in play, compromised preparation or not.

5. Don’t discount the defending champ

It’s been a season of few ups and plenty of downs for Miller’s good mate Cal Crutchlow in 2017, the LCR Honda rider enduring his worst campaign in three years. Other than fourth at Silverstone in August, the British rider has just four points to show from Austria to Motegi last weekend, where he managed to crash twice en route to a second-straight DNF.

It sounds like the beginning of an unwanted trend, but don’t expect that to continue at the Island, a circuit where Crutchlow generally thrives. The 2016 Australian race-winner has two of his 13 career podiums in Australia, has qualified on the front two rows for five successive years, and has to be considered a serious threat this weekend despite sitting ninth overall in the standings. A top-three finish would be a surprise, but only a mild one.

The MotoGP mid-term report

Who has flown, who has flopped, and who has plenty to do at the halfway mark of the 2017 MotoGP season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was never going to be easy for MotoGP 2017 to out-do the season that preceded it; after all, nine different winners, four first-time victors and too many memorable races to list makes 2016 hard to top. But so far, ’17 has upheld its part of the bargain, and as the campaign takes a month-long pause for the mid-season break, it could be argued that this year is even more gripping than last.

With nine races down and nine races to go, we’ve already had five different riders wins Grands Prix, 10 different men stand on the podium, and four riders – Marc Marquez, Maverick Vinales, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi – separated by just 10 points at the head of the table.

Undoubtedly the biggest winners of 2017 so far? The fans. But with ‘school’ out for the summer break before the Czech Republic Grand Prix signals the resumption of term on August 6, picking winners and losers from the 27 riders to have started a race this season isn’t as clear-cut. Which is where our annual mid-season report card comes in. Release the grades …

Dux of the class
When we ran the rule over the two-wheel field this time last year, Marc Marquez was a runaway winner in this category, going to the summer break with a 48-point lead – nearly two race wins – with nine down and nine to go. While the reigning and three-time MotoGP champ heads our class report so far this year, his lead over second-placed Vinales – just five points – is next to nothing, and he’s led the championship precisely once, after taking his second victory of 2017 last time out in Germany. But dig through the numbers, and it’s hard to argue Marquez isn’t the man of the year so far.

Out of the front-running four we mentioned earlier, the Repsol Honda rider is by far the best qualifier – he has six front-row starts in nine races and an average qualifying position of 2.7 (Vinales is next-best at 5.1), while five podiums sees him equal with teammate Dani Pedrosa for the most on the grid. Two costly DNFs – particularly when he was leading in Argentina – are negatives, but his wins in Austin (for the fifth year in a row) and the Sachsenring (for a remarkable eighth-straight time going back to his time in the feeder classes) show that when he’s on it, Marquez remains the benchmark, particularly as it could be argued that he’s on the worst bike of the top four.

Vinales started his Yamaha tenure like a train but has struggled more recently, averaging a fourth-row start in the last three races before the break, and recording just one podium in the past four races after winning three of the opening five. Dovizioso’s back-to-back wins at Mugello and Catalunya were all class, and he’s made Ducati look more convincing as a front-running bike than anyone since the Casey Stoner era. And Rossi, all of 38 years young, wound back the clock with a brilliant win in very difficult conditions at Assen for his first triumph in over 12 months. But to our mind, Marquez stands alone here.

Bizarrely, Marquez and Vinales haven’t been on the same podium together yet despite being first and second in the championship and separated by such a miniscule margin. You figure that when they meet on track in the final nine races – and they surely will – fireworks will ensue.

Encouragement award
Rossi and Dovizioso have cause to be considered here too for reasons we’ve already mentioned, but it’s impossible to split Tech 3 Yamaha’s duo of crack rookies, Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.

Zarco has hogged the majority of the headlines, as he should have after leading in Qatar on debut and snagging a sublime pole at Assen, and the two-time Moto2 champion has shown absolutely no hesitation in ruffling the feathers of the MotoGP top-liners, which has to be commended. Folger, while going about his business more subtly, loses little by comparison, and rounded out a strong first half with his best performance of the season at home in Germany, where he made Sachsenring master Marquez sweat for most of the 30-lap distance before the Repsol Honda man (inevitably) stretched away.

Thanks to Zarco and Folger, Tech 3 has arguably been the star team of the season – last year, with experienced pair Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith on board, the French team had scored 107 points at the season recess; this season, its rookie duo have managed 155 to both sit inside the top seven in the standings.

A gold star here must go to Pramac Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci, who managed three front-row starts in a row before the break, and came within inches of a breakthrough first win before being denied at the line by good friend Rossi at Assen. Two podiums already for the Italian has doubled his tally from his first five MotoGP seasons combined.

Could do better
We could say Scott Redding here, who, while admittedly on an inferior machine to teammate Petrucci, has struggled this season and looks set to lose his ride for 2018, We could equally vouch for Redding’s compatriot Sam Lowes, who has endured a wretched run of luck with his Aprilia but hasn’t been particularly quick when the bike has actually worked, and has managed two points – the worst of any full-time rider in the series – so far.

But no, we’ll opt for Jorge Lorenzo, who has found the switch to Ducati to be more problematic than even he would have feared. One podium total (a third at Jerez) looks pretty underwhelming for the three-time champion compared to two wins for teammate Dovizioso, and while both riders have finished eight of the nine races, the Italian has come close to doubling the Spaniard’s points tally (123-65).

Having to re-train his brain to remember he’s not riding a Yamaha after nine seasons was always going to take time for Lorenzo, and he’ll be hoping for fine weather for the rest of the season after his wet-weather demons resurfaced again at Assen, where he laboured to the worst qualifying result of his MotoGP career in 21st, and his worst effort on a Saturday since his 125cc days 14 years ago (Jerez 2003). Things will get surely better for Ducati’s star signing, but they need to, and fast.

Needs a strong second semester
It may seem harsh to have Jack Miller in this spot, but when you come into the final year of a three-year contract with HRC with a MotoGP race win under your belt, expectations were always going to be raised in 2017. The Australian has largely delivered – he has one championship point fewer at the mid-year break this season compared to last after the unexpected Assen success in 2016 – but with all sorts of rumours swirling about his future as the paddock packed up in Germany, he needs more, and he knows it.

“I would have liked to have been inside the top 10 in the standings, but we’ve had a couple of little mistakes here and there that cost us,” Miller said about the season’s first half.

“We’ve shown we’ve really improved this year, and I’m looking forward to making another, let’s say 60 points, in the rest of the season. That’d be nice.”

Reaching the ton for the season – and getting to the end of it in decent physical shape after an injury-ravaged conclusion to 2016 – would be a pass mark for the Aussie before he gets set for his next adventure in ’17.

Extra detention
We’re not picking on Andrea Iannone despite having him in this same category this time last year, but a change of hue from red to blue has done little to change our mind about the maddeningly inconsistent but very rapid Italian. It’s been a tough campaign for Suzuki after losing Vinales and Aleix Espargaro last year, and while Alex Rins’ rookie campaign has barely got started after breaking his left wrist in practice at Austin and missing five races, Iannone has been the blue team’s ever-present, yet has been close to invisible for much of the year.

He’s managed just 28 points in nine races, has failed to finish three times, and has made Q2 just once in the past five races. Former Suzuki legend Kevin Schwantz, speaking to Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport in Germany, let Iannone have it.

“I know by experience that if things are wrong, there is only one thing to do; get out there and work – and try,” the 1993 500cc champion said.

“You have to do more than all the others to try to recover. Iannone is lost, because it seems like he wants the Suzuki to behave like the Ducati. But this bike will never be a Ducati. He should try to take advantage of its strengths.

“Speaking to him, it seems that the bike has no strengths. I don’t understand Italian, but his body language is as bad as it can be.”